To what extent should urban neighbourhoods and local businesses be impacted by the construction of transit or other infrastructure projects?
That is the question Toronto’s Eglinton West neighbourhood is grappling with as the ongoing construction of the Eglinton Crosstown—an LRT line that intends to make midtown more transit accessible—continues to produce economic devastation, mass displacement and historical erasure of the city’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood.
Like many cities across Canada, its neighbourhoods are an encapsulation of immigration trends and patterns that have resulted in ethnic enclaves within their regions. Toronto’s Little Jamaica is one of them. For many Caribbean people who migrated to the city during the 70s and 80s, it became a transitory space for some, who settled and later moved to other parts of the GTA, and a home for others who still call it home. The neighbourhood has also been widely known as a hub for Black businesses and for Jamaican and Caribbean culture and cuisine. Though the demographic of its current residents and business owners has diversified, there’s still a high number of Black and Afro-Caribbean people that exist in the space.
The almost decade-long Eglinton Crosstown transit project has effectively forced many of the community’s long-standing businesses to either see a severe decrease in patronage or shut down completely. The streets are congested with equipment and pylons, storefronts are blocked making it unsure to tell which businesses are operating or not, and the vibrancy that used to blanket the neighbourhood has dissipated.
To make matters worse, Metrolinx recently announced that the construction, originally set to be completed in 2021, has been pushed back and “will open well into 2022.” Problematizing this construction project is no way meant to force a debate between the need for better, more efficient transit against the preservation of a community and its economic viability. Rather, it’s meant to highlight what is in fact happening locally to a community of people whose livelihoods are being disregarded for a project with a continuous moving end date — operating seemingly without accountability and oversight.
As a result, Toronto’s Little Jamaica is in a state of crisis.
Businesses have and will continue to suffer. Lives will continue to be affected. The trajectory of a community will still be at the mercy of decision makers who don’t have to contend with the same realities they do. Many businesses have already either left or relocated burdening the costs on their own given the disruption that the construction has caused; some have been displaced because of a loss in revenue and others are struggling to stay afloat as the fate of their businesses lies in jeopardy.
Indeed, building more transit is important. With Toronto’s population projected to rise to 4.27 million by 2046, an increase of 44.5%, moving residents efficiently within and out of the city should be a top priority. However, what cost should communities in Toronto and other municipalities across the country be expected to bear for this and future transit projects that continue to experience disruption and delays? The loss of culture, heritage and small business development in their local neighbourhoods, as seen in Toronto’s Little Jamaica, certainly is a cost too high.
Something needs to change.
For transit projects that have the potential to produce mass economic disruption, displacement and loss of culture, as the Eglinton Crosstown has, a mitigation fund should be put in place to support vulnerable small businesses, especially those belonging to marginalized ethnocultural groups. This fund would provide compensation in the form of operating subsidiaries, tax breaks or grants. Furthermore, special attention should be given to businesses owners and/or population that serve those who are Black, Indigenous and/or people of colour. In the case of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, this vital observation [the presence and existence of Little Jamaica] seemed to have been missed in the early environmental impact assessments associated with the project. Thus, for all transit projects, municipalities should undergo environmental assessments that take into consideration and include the informal connections and cultural make-up of neighbourhoods that projects will run through. This requires an active partnership with community leaders from this area at the inception of the project idea.
It’s impossible to see Little Jamaica as a hub for Jamaican and Caribbean culture and cuisine if Jamaican and Caribbean people don’t exist there. Though there’s been some recent political mobilization to remedy the damage and assist the remaining businesses, it does not change the fact that the city did a disservice by not recognizing these businesses within its proper historical context and properly equipped its owners with the appropriate financial resources needed for businesses to continue operating from the onset. It’s not too late to do so. The lives of these individuals are inclusive of but more than the culinary offerings or cultural experiences they offer. If the city is going to tout the flag of diversity, it also needs to be ready to show up for said diverse residents in meaningful and practical ways.
Sharine Taylor is a writer and filmmaker.